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How to Replace Recessed Lighting the Easy Way

If you have an older house with dingy, off-white recessed light units, chances are you may want to replace them asap.  That’s what we had when we moved into The Arched Manor, and we have slowly been going through each room painting the ceiling white, and installing Retrofit LED light bulbs (more on that later).  So today, we delve into the world of replacing recessed lighting—a task that might seem daunting at first but can be easily be accomplished with the right knowledge and tools in hand. So, roll up your sleeves and let’s shed some light on this illuminating endeavor (see what I did there?).

We have replaced or added new recessed lights in most of the renovations we’ve done throughout our home. Recessed lighting can really transform the atmosphere of a room, providing a clean and updated look while also improving the overall brightness and functionality of the space. Recessed lights are great for both a large and small space. It’s amazing how such a seemingly small change can make such a big difference in the overall ambiance of your home.

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Understanding Recessed Lighting

Recessed lighting, often dubbed as can lights, pot lights or downlights, represents a sophisticated lighting solution both loved by homeowners and designers alike. It’s a fixture integrated into ceilings, giving a minimalist aesthetic. Functionally versatile, recessed lighting serves as a primary source of ambient lighting, accentuating architectural features, artwork, or specific areas within a room. A recessed fixture’s discreet profile makes it ideal for spaces where traditional fixtures might feel obtrusive, offering a clean and uncluttered look. With options ranging from halogen to LED, recessed lighting caters to diverse lighting needs, whether it’s brightening up a kitchen workspace or creating a cozy atmosphere in a living room. In essence, recessed lighting epitomizes the marriage of form and function, elevating the ambiance of any space with its understated charm and practical versatility.

The Parts of Recessed Light Fixture

A recessed light fixture, which as mentioned before, is commonly used to provide ambient lighting in a variety of spaces and consists of several key components. The trim is the visible part of the fixture that adds aesthetic appeal to the ceiling; it comes in various colors and styles to match different decors. Hidden above the trim is the baffle, which helps to minimize glare by controlling and directing the light downwards. The housing is the main body of the fixture, installed above the ceiling line, which contains the electrical connections and supports the light bulb or LED module. Inside the housing, you’ll also find the socket where the light bulb is installed. Lastly, some recessed lighting includes an adjustable eyeball that can be tilted to direct light to a specific area, making it a great option for highlighting artwork or architectural features.

Retrofit Recessed Light Bulbs

If your home is older and has traditional recessed lights (trim, baffle, housing), we strongly recommend you replace the trim, baffle, and bulb with an LED Retrofit Kit.  LED bulbs are highly energy-efficient, significantly reducing electricity costs compared to traditional incandescent or halogen bulbs. They also have a longer lifespan, which means fewer replacements and less maintenance over time. This is a big win since no one likes having to get out the ladder to change a bunch of lightbulbs. Additionally, LED bulbs offer improved light quality with options for different color temperatures, allowing homeowners to customize the mood of their spaces from warm to cool lighting. Another advantage is that they generate much less heat, great for safety and comfort in the home. Finally, the ease of installation with retrofit kits enables a simple upgrade to existing fixtures, making it a practical and cost-effective home improvement. 

When considering retrofit kits for your recessed lighting, be sure to measure the diameter of your existing fixtures carefully to ensure compatibility with the kit you choose. Additionally, look for kits with high-quality LEDs that provide consistent light output, color accuracy, and a wide beam angle for even illumination. With the right retrofit kit, you can easily upgrade your existing recessed lighting to energy-efficient LED technology and enjoy improved lighting for years to come.

Assessing the Situation

The first step in replacing recessed lighting is to assess the existing setup and light locations. Take note of the type of recessed fixtures you have—whether they are IC-rated (insulation contact) or non-IC-rated—and their sizes. Additionally, determine whether you have access to the fixtures from above (attic or crawl space) or if they can be accessed from below. Also, consider what type of wall switch you would like. If you would like to have a dimmer switch, you’ll need bulbs and fixtures that are compatible with that type of light switch. 

Gathering the Tools and Materials

Now that you have a clear understanding of your existing setup, it’s time to gather the necessary tools and materials for the replacement:

  • Ladder or step stool
  • Safety goggles
  • Work gloves

Safety First

Before you start any electrical work or install any new light, safety should be your top priority. If you are removing the light housing or going to touch any wires at all, make sure to turn off the power to the lighting circuit at the electrical box and use a voltage tester to double-check that the power is indeed off before proceeding. If you are just installing an LED Retrofit kit, you do not need to turn off the power at the circuit breaker, just turn the light switch off so the light is not on.  If you have any questions or concerns, we always suggest reaching out to a qualified electrician.

The Replacement Process for Traditional Recessed Light Fixtures

Step 1: Remove the Old Fixture – Depending on the type of fixture you have, you’ll either need to unscrew the old bulb from the light housing or detach it using spring clips. Carefully lower the fixture from the ceiling and disconnect the wiring.

Step 2: Prepare the New Fixture – If your new fixture isn’t already assembled, follow the manufacturer’s instructions to do so. This typically involves attaching the trim piece and securing the housing.

Step 3: Connect the Wiring – Match the wires from the new fixture to the corresponding wires in the ceiling, making sure to twist wire connectors securely in place. If your new fixture requires a ground wire connection, be sure to include this step.

Step 4: Secure the Fixture – Once the wiring is connected, gently push the fixture into the housing until it clicks into place. If your fixture uses spring clips, ensure they are engaged properly to hold the fixture in position.

Step 5: Test the Fixture – Before fully installing the trim, turn the power back on at the breaker box and test the new fixture to ensure it’s working correctly. If everything checks out, proceed to install the trim according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

Step 6: Finishing Touches: Once the trim is installed, step back and admire your handiwork! Adjust the direction of the light if necessary to achieve the desired illumination.

The Replacement Process for Retrofit LED Bulbs

Step 1: Unscrew the existing light bulb from the socket. 

Step 2: Remove the trim and baffle from the existing unit. This may be dusty and have dead bugs around it. Wear eye protection

Step 3: Remove the LED Retrofit unit from the box and follow the unit preparation instructions.  For our Cree LED Retrofit units, this required us to move the three metal tabs outwards. 

Step 4: Screw the LED Retrofit bulb attachment into the socket of the recessed light socket. 

Step 5: Push and wiggle the LED Retrofit unit into position until it is flush with the ceiling. 

Additional Tips and Considerations

Choose the Right Bulbs: When choosing light bulbs for your new recessed lighting fixtures, consider factors such as energy efficiency, color temperature, brightness, lifespan and compatibility with your fixtures and dimmer switches. We prefer to use 2700K to 3000K bulbs in our home and recommend this for yours. These give a nice, warm, inviting light.  Below are some popular options.

LED (Light Emitting Diode) Bulbs

LED bulbs are highly energy-efficient, durable, and long-lasting. They come in various shapes, sizes, and color temperatures, making them suitable for different lighting needs throughout your home. LED bulbs are great for general lighting, task lighting, and accent lighting.

CFL (Compact Fluorescent Lamp) Bulbs

CFL bulbs are another energy-efficient option, though they are not as efficient or long-lasting as LEDs. They produce a similar amount of light as incandescent bulbs but use less energy. CFLs come in different shapes and sizes, and they’re suitable for general lighting purposes.

Halogen Bulbs

Halogen bulbs are a type of incandescent bulb that produces a bright, white light. They’re more energy-efficient than traditional incandescent bulbs but less so compared to LEDs and CFLs. Halogens are often used for task lighting and accent lighting.

Incandescent Bulbs

While not as energy-efficient as other options, incandescent bulbs still have their place in certain applications. They produce a warm, cozy light and are often used in decorative fixtures or where dimmability is desired. However, they have a shorter lifespan and consume more energy than LEDs and CFLs.  

Note – As of August 1, 2023, incandescent bulbs (with some exceptions) are no longer being manufactured or sold in the United States. 

Smart Bulbs

Smart bulbs, typically LED-based, are connected to your home’s Wi-Fi network and can be controlled remotely via a smartphone app or voice commands. They offer features like dimming, color-changing capabilities, and scheduling, providing convenience and flexibility in lighting control. 

Decorative Filament Bulbs

These LED bulbs mimic the look of vintage incandescent bulbs with visible filaments, but they are much more energy-efficient. They’re great for decorative lighting fixtures where you want to create a nostalgic ambiance.

An LED bulb is often the popular choice for its overall performance and energy savings, but the best option depends on your specific lighting needs and preferences.

Canless LED Wafer Kits

These are relatively new in the industry, but are used often in new-construction.  These lights are super thin and don’t require a recessed housing unit to be installed, and they can be installed right up to insulation (good for second story installs where the ceiling insulation sits on top).  These can be controlled by a normal switch or dimmer, or can be linked via Wifi and controlled through an App.  These also can come with multi-color modes, so you can change the color of the light using an app or remote.  


Replacing recessed lights may seem like a daunting task, but armed with the right knowledge and tools, it can be a rewarding DIY project that adds both beauty and functionality to your home. It may also reduce your monthly energy bill if you choose energy efficient bulbs (such as LEDs).  Remember to approach the task with caution, prioritize safety at all times, and don’t hesitate to seek professional assistance if needed. With a little patience and perseverance, you’ll be basking in the warm glow of your newly installed recessed lighting in no time. 

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Meet Megan & John

Hi there! We’re a married couple with a passion for DIY, decor, and home improvement! We’re currently renovating The Arched Manor in Leesburg, VA.